|SOURCE: NASCAR Media|
The finish was Stewart’s first of the 2014 season and his first in a Sprint Cup race since March 2, 2008 - 223 races ago - when his #20 Home Depot Toyota crashed after 107 laps of the UAW-Dodge 400 at Las Vegas. Three of Stewart’s Cup Series last-place finishes have now come in restrictor-plate races - Sunday’s joins the 2002 and 2007 runnings of the Daytona 500. The fifth finish came at Fontana in 2006.
In those 223 races since his most recent last-place finish, Stewart, the three-time NASCAR Sprint Cup Series Champion, has prevailed over many challenges. He founded Stewart-Haas Racing in 2009, gave the team its first race that season, then the team’s first championship in dramatic fashion two years later. He suffered serious injuries in a sprint car crash last August, then returned this February to a newly-expanded four-car operation whose two brand-new teams have already won this year with Kevin Harvick and Kurt Busch.
Coming into Talladega, Stewart has fought for consistency while balancing his duties as owner. Last month at Texas, he claimed his first pole since 2012 and finished 10th, one of his four top-ten finises in the first nine races. With the lion’s share of his 48 Cup Series wins taking place after the month of May, it was not unusual that Stewart came to Talladega without a win so far this season. But Stewart’s last-place finish was a surprise.
Stewart qualified 12th for Sunday’s race, having made his way into the final qualifying round. Left without a drafting partner for that final five-minute session, he managed a lap of only 188.958 mph, more than a second off the pace of 11th-place Jeff Gordon. He was 31st-fastest in the opening practice and 3rd out of the 27 who took part in Happy Hour.
Most importantly, as Sunday’s race began, Stewart kept his nose clean while running mid-pack. Such could not be said of Brad Keselowski, who on Lap 14 took the 43rd spot from Kyle Busch when he crossed the nose of Danica Patrick during a bid for the lead in Turn 1. Keselowski managed to avoid contact with the wall and other cars, but a sliced radiator hose required repairs that left him six laps down.
When Keselowski returned to the track, he was one of only two cars not on the lead lap. The other was Jamie McMurray, who had damaged his splitter driving through the grass to avoid Keselowski’s spinning car. Both held the final two positions all the way until Lap 138, when Keselowski broke loose while running among the leaders in Turn 4, triggering a fourteen-car pileup.
As Keselowski spun up the track, rookie drivers Cole Whitt and Brian Scott veered left, directly into the path of Tony Stewart. All three cars collided and slid into the inside wall. No drivers were injured, but Stewart, Scott, and Trevor Bayne were all done for the day due to crash damage. Stewart, who crossed the stripe last of that group, slipped to 42nd with Scott and Bayne right in front of him.
When Keselowski managed to return to the track, Stewart dropped to 43rd. Keselowski ended up 38th. He has yet to finish last in any of his 171 Sprint Cup starts. McMurray, the beneficiary of six “Lucky Dogs,” got all but one of his laps back for a 29th-place run.
Rounding out the Bottom Five were David Gilliland, last April’s runner-up finisher, who lost the engine on his #38 Love’s Travel Stop Ford after 150 laps, and the lapped machine of Jeff Gordon, also involved in the Lap 138 wreck.
*This is the first last-place finish for the #14 in a NASCAR Cup Series race since June 24, 2007, when Sterling Marlin’s #14 Wiley X Chevrolet lost the engine after he completed 12 laps of the Toyota / Save Mart 350 at the Sonoma Raceway.
*This is just the second last-place finish for Stewart-Haas Racing, joining last October’s finish by Danica Patrick after her first-lap crash at Kansas.
*This is Stewart’s first last-place finish in a NASCAR race at Talladega.
THE BOTTOM FIVE
43) #14-Tony Stewart / 136 laps / crash
42) #33-Brian Scott / 136 laps / crash
41) #21-Trevor Bayne / 136 laps / crash / led 6 laps
40) #38-David Gililand / 150 laps / engine / led 1 lap
39) #24-Jeff Gordon / 156 laps / running / led 1 lap
LASTCAR CUP SERIES DRIVER'S CHAMPIONSHIP
1st) Aric Almirola, Dave Blaney, Clint Bowyer, Dale Earnhardt, Jr., Timmy Hill, Michael McDowell, Joe Nemechek, Morgan Shepherd, Tony Stewart, Martin Truex, Jr. (1)
LASTCAR CUP SERIES OWNER'S CHAMPIONSHIP
1st) #14-Stewart-Haas Racing, #15-Michael Waltrip Racing, #33-Circle Sport, #43-Richard Petty Motorsports, #66-Michael Waltrip Racing / NEMCO-JRR Motorsports, #77-Randy Humphrey Racing, #78-Furniture Row Racing, #87-NEMCO-JRR Motorsports, #88-Hendrick Motorsports, #95-Leavine Family Racing (1)
LASTCAR CUP SERIES MANUFACTURER'S CHAMPIONSHIP
1st) Chevrolet (4)
2nd) Ford, Toyota (3)